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How To Be Happy

By Victoria Gurvich and Barbara Lantin
The Age, 7/07/2003

Happiness: A Swedish sunset – it is there for all but most of us look the other way and lose it. Mark Twain

Keying in the word ‘happiness’ on the internet search engine Google yields more than three million results. These include the World Database of Happiness, a register run by Ruut Veehnoven, a professor at the University of Utrecht and the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which lists 3500 academic studies, 1900 international surveys and 522 different indicators of contentment.

It’s enough information overload to make you sad – and, for the matter, sick. As a study in Britain last year showed, people with high levels of wellbeing visit their doctor less often, while American research has revealed that people who consider themselves to be highly optimistic live, on average, 7.5 years longer than pessimists.

Dr Craig Hassed, a senior lecturer at Monash University’s department of general practice in the medical faculty, says that if such studies were replicated in Australia, the results would probably be similar.

“There is obviously something physiological going on here, but nobody has yet fully explained it,” says Dr David Peters, from the University of Westminster. “Pessimists have higher levels of most diseases, from heart disease to migraine, probably because they have an overcharged autonomic nervous system and a relatively rundown immune system.

“Being optimistic, which is strongly associated with a high wellbeing score, has an impact on one’s way of handling stress, and that affects the way our cardiovascular, nervous and immune systems work, all of which adds up to greater resilience to disease,” Peters says. “Altering your psychological characteristics can probably increase longevity. If optimism were a drug, we would all prescribe it.”

The World Database summarises happiness as a subjective appreciation of life as a whole”, or how well one likes the life one lives. It is not about being jolly all the time, having lots of fun or avoiding unhappy events, says Ben Renshaw, co-founder of the Happiness Project, which runs courses and workshops. “Many people confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is the next pay cheque, the next holiday, chocolates and wine,” Renshaw says. “You can be a pleasure junkie, always seeking the next fix, but all these experiences come and go.

“Contentment is longer term – being satisfied with your home, your job, your partner. But there’s another kind of happiness that we call joy. It is not an emotion: it is a way of being, a state of mind that is available to everybody. It is not found in things: it is found in us. Just as the sun is always shining somewhere but we don’t see it, so life’s experiences and our limiting beliefs cloud the happiness that we were born with.”

So what determines whether an individual is likely to be happy? Research at the University of Minnesota showed that identical twins raised apart shared the same happiness level, no matter what their circumstances.

The Wellbeing survey identified 15 interrelated factors. “When people have wellbeing, they have a feeling of being broadly in control of their lives, of being able to shape the direction their lives take,” says Dr Michelle Harrison of the Henley Centre, who analysed the data. “They are able to manage and benefit from the increasing number of choices that life offers, and they can cope with the recognition that there are parts that cannot be controlled.”

Professor Michael Argyle, a social psychologist, found that happy people were more likely to have at least one close relationship and a network of friends, satisfying and challenging work, absorbing leisure activities and a particular personality type.

So, finding happiness may take some work, says Australian author and motivational speaker Amanda Gore. But it involves very simple concepts which we may have forgotten in our busy lives – and one of the keys is laughter.

Many people have fallen into the habit of being cynical, says Gore, and such people should actively look for “good in situations and people” and find “good things about everything.”

Happiness also involves letting go, forgiving, optimism, and feeling as if you are making a contribution.

Gore, who is based in Dallas, Texas and has recently updated her book You Can Be Happy, points out that Olympic athletes who mentally rehearse competing and winning do improve their chances of success.

Worrying, on the other hand, she says, is vividly imagining what you don’t want to happen. Optimists imagine good things happening while pessimists view things through gloomy glass.

So what determines whether an individual has a positive outlook on life? “Things that give life meaning and purpose increase your chances of being happy today,” says psychiatrist Larry Culliford. “This includes feeling connected to others and having an active spiritual or religious life. Living in the present is also a factor, rather than dwelling on past loss or on a real or imagined future.”

The typical happy personality is extrovert, confident and assertive, with good social skills. Happy people tend to be psychologically resilient; they remember good things about the past and are optimistic about the future. They are tolerant, with moderate views. When things go wrong, they do not blame themselves, nor set themselves unrealistic goals.

“The relationship you have with yourself will determine the relationship you have with happiness,” says Renshaw. “Happiness is far more accessible if you have high self-esteem than if you are constantly putting yourself down and seeing yourself in a negative light.”

Money does not generally buy happiness. However, a windfall of $1 million can turn a person with average contentment into a very happy one. But the good news is that although happiness quotients may be influenced by genes and upbringing, it can be changed for the better. Helping people to cope with life events and with stress, to feel more in control and to develop their self-esteem, improves their happiness.

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